Yesterday, I bought a ticket to Salt Lake City. So now there’s no backing out. I’m going to Fall Moab 2006 (or, if you’re one of the few people in the world who still thinks in terms of calendar years rather than fiscal, you can quaintly call it "Fall Moab 2005"). Fall Moab is an annual event where an increasingly large group (close to 20 this year, it looks like) of mountain biking buddies gets together and goes riding for three days in and around Moab, UT — the desert MTB capital of the universe.
This means I need to get a mountain bike, pronto. It means that I’m going to have to shave my legs again. It means I’m going to get banged up, and cut up: it happens to every single one of us, every single year. And it means I’m going to have more fun than I do at any other event of the year.
Most importantly, though, it means I need to brush up on my trash-talking skills.
Why is Trash Talking Important?
Know this: When a group of cyclists gets together for what they call a “friendly group ride,” they’re speaking in code. What they actually mean is, “We’re getting together to bare our teeth and snarl at each other for fifteen minutes, after which we will climb on our bikes and see who is the alpha cyclist — the dominant rider of the pack, the one who chooses the course, who picks the pace, who keeps the other wolves in line.”
You see, the group ride isn’t just a group riding together. It’s an important ritual, an essential component of which is the pre-ride (and sometimes, during-ride) trash talking. It’s during the pre-ride trash talking that you discover other riders’ intentions. Who is in contention? Who is weak? Who can be damaged psychologically before the ride, making them more susceptible to a bluff attack during the ride?
It’s a beautiful dance, really. And I’m sadly out of practice.
Techniques for Beginners
I’ve done some research into cyclist trash talking behavior, and have uncovered some patterns even novices can use to good effect.
- Feigned concern: “You’ve had a hard time keeping up lately. Are you OK? I can tell the group to go easy today if you want.” Or, “Man, that’s a pretty technical move; I don’t think I clean it more than six out of ten tries. You may want to skip it; you don’t want to get hurt.”
- Cloaked boast: “Dude, that is a seriously nice bike. Every time I ride with you, I can’t help but admire that thing. How much does that thing weigh, sixteen pounds? Sheesh, that’s light. I wonder how I manage to keep up with you, what with my bike weighing around twenty pounds, and my goiter acting up.”
- Anti-trash talk: “Could we go easy today? I just had a kidney removed, and am still a little sore. Plus, you guys look like you’re really strong — I’m not sure I can hang.” Important note: Do not use this technique unless you are certain that you can hang with the group, even if they ramp up into the red zone and stay there. If you miscalculate and your anti-trash talk turned out to be an accurate prediction of the day’s events, you will be known as a hangdog, whiney, weakling complainer.
- Question and followup: “So, how are you feeling today?” (Wait for response.) “Seriously, you feel good? Because you look like you’ve gained some weight. I’m sure that’s just because you’re wearing a padded jacket, though.” (Wait for response.) “Oh, really? No padding at all? Well, that’s weird.”
- Power play: “I look out at this group, and I see nothing that impresses me. Oh well, I guess I can treat this as a recovery day.” Important note: This is a risky technique. If you use this, be aware that anything apart from absolute domination will be perceived as failure.
Tips for Advanced Trash Talkers
There was a time when people used to remark that I was the meanest person they knew, once I actually started saying what I was thinking. In days of yore I have shut people down — so completely dumbfounded them with my trash talk that backing it up with performance on the bike seemed beside the point.
That, alas, was years ago. I am now so out of practice with advanced trash talking (I have young children who don’t exactly thrive on that kind of feedback), that I must rely primarily on other, more skilled trash talkers for these advanced techniques. Thanks (I guess) to Dug and Simeon, both of whom I no longer consider friends.
- Post Mortem Trash Talk: Simeon, the guy who I rode with for most of the Issaquah Alps randonneuring event — until he shot off the front and demolished me in the final hour — sent me this e-mail the day following the ride:
I realized some time after the ride that you were actually suffering from a cold or worse (the dripping nose gave it away), but it was still good to finish ahead of you.
In one elegant sentence, Simeon reminded me that he cleaned my clock, said I looked gross, and provided me with an excuse we both knew wasn’t true; the implied subtext of the “proffered excuse ploy” is: “What? You didn’t have a cold? Well, why were you so slow, then?” This kind of masterful post mortem trash talk instills fear in your opponent (and let’s be clear: everyone is your opponent). This fear will grow and fester until — and beyond — the next ride. I am now terrified of Simeon.
- Get Personal: If someone has a gut, use the gut to your advantage, even if man-with-gut is kicking your butt and dropping you. Ask probing questions: “Does your gut get in the way of your legs on the upstroke?” “Do you think you’d go faster if you lost some weight?” If your target does not respond, you can be confident both that he hears you and that you are being effective.
- Do Not Back Down: If your target appears to be sensitive, this is not the time to back off. Run up the score. This is a good time to get experimental. Try some techniques you’ve been keeping until they’re ready.
- Exploit Admitted Weaknesses: If your target acknowledges an actual, diagnosable problem that will slow him down, it’s time to lean in. For example, if he says, “Well, jeez, I just had a heart attack this afternoon and am taking beta blockers that slow me down quite a bit,” he has just made your job easier, not harder. Immediately respond by rolling your eyes and saying, "Oh, playing the heart attack card. Nice. You know, I have technically been a corpse for three months now. It’s never slowed me down.”
- Acknowledge: If your opponent comes up with something ridiculously good, you have to recognize. It’s a community effort. Immediately incorporate the learned technique into your own arsenal.
Today’s weight: 159.4